Oklahoma Joe’s Bandera is a compact but capacious offset smoker thanks to its unusual upright vertical design. Though there are a few challenges to work around, the versatile unit is well suited for the cook who wants to get a little more serious about smoking meats, fish, and vegetables over wood but isn’t ready to invest in a high-end offset cooker.
The Bandera’s most noticeable feature is its upright smoking chamber, which is oriented vertically with an offset firebox to one side. This design gives it a relatively compact footprint (just forty inches wide) and a tall profile of just over five feet.
Unlike Oklahoma Joe’s horizontal offsets, which have round barrel-style fireboxes, the Bandera’s is rectangular. Inside, a charcoal grate sits atop a sturdy, removable ash pan, which slides fully out for emptying spent coals. Dampers at the base open and close via a simple sliding handle to control airflow to the fire. Learn how controlling vents = controlling temperature.
Like what you’re reading? Click here to get Smoke Signals, our free monthly email that tells you about new articles, recipes, product reviews, science, myth-busting, and more. Be Amazing!
Beneath the hinged lid on top of the firebox are three sets of brackets that can hold a cooking rack to allow direct heat grilling over the coals. A wire mesh shelf is mounted on the outside of the firebox just below the lid, and it’s large enough for resting pans of meat while loading the chamber and holding tongs, beers, and other essentials.
The real versatility of the Bandera comes from what’s inside the cooking chamber. Fourteen rows of brackets can hold a water pan, horizontal cooking racks, a pair of rib racks, and two meat hooks, all of which are included with the unit. The four 15.75″ x 16″ wire racks are coated with black porcelain, as is the large water pan. Though it can be moved higher, the water pan typically is positioned on the lowest brackets closest to the baffle where the heat and smoke enter the chamber from the firebox.
Up your game: Join our Pitmaster Club. Try it out for free for 30 days. No credit card is needed. No spam. Join now and Be Amazing!
At the top of the cooking chamber, a short square smokestack is topped with a damper secured by a single screw and spring, which allows you to swivel it open and closed to increase or reduce airflow through the chamber. A temperature gauge is installed in the center of the chamber door. This gauge isn’t as bad as some, but built-in analog thermometers are notoriously inaccurate. Click here to learn why you absolutely need digital thermometers.
The cooking chamber and firebox are made from 2.5mm and 2mm rolled steel, respectively, which is a good bit thicker than the metal used in smokers at the lowest end of the market but still a ways from the quarter-inch steel used in more expensive models. The exterior of the chamber and firebox is finished with high-temperature black paint.
The whole unit is mounted on a sturdy, four-legged frame with a broad shelf that can be used for storing wood and tools. Two large steel wagon-style wheels are mounted beneath the chamber. Weighing in at just under 200 pounds, this is by no means a portable smoker, but it is relatively easy to raise one end using the handle mounted above the firebox and roll the pit to a new spot on a patio or other hard surface.
Packaging and assembly
Some assembly is definitely required with the Bandera. It ships in a single heavy box checking in at around 200 pounds, and there’s a lot to unpack (the contents, I should note, are well-packaged with lots of inner boxes, plastic wrapping, and styrofoam padding).
The instructions neglect to specify the tools required, but I ended up needing a large Phillips head screwdriver, a socket wrench with 11mm and 14mm sockets, and an adjustable wrench, plus a knife for opening the boxes and heavy work gloves for moving the larger metal pieces. Assembly is relatively straightforward, though there are lots of steps, and fastening the nuts and bolts to the firebox and cooking chamber requires working in some cramped and hard-to-reach places.
From start to finish, assembly took me about two hours. In addition to help moving the box before unpacking, you will definitely need an extra set of hands to lift the heavy smoke chamber onto the assembled base.
Before my first cook, I seasoned the smoker following the instructions in the product guide, brushing all the interior surfaces with vegetable oil then lighting a small fire in the firebox and letting it burn for two hours. I ended up having to add a good bit more charcoal and wood than the manual recommended to get the temperature to a sustained 250℉ — a preview of some temperature control issues we’ll return to in a bit.
Thanks to its vertical orientation, the Bandera’s 36-inch high smoking chamber can hold a surprisingly large amount of meat and other foods. For comparison, Oklahoma Joe’s horizontal offsets provide between 620 and 750 square inches of cooking space, depending upon the model. The Bandera’s four horizontal racks alone provide a combined area of just under 1,000 square inches, with room to spare for hanging sausages or other small items.
Alternatively, you can remove one rack, load in five slabs of baby backs in the rib racks, and still have a good 750 square inches of flat cooking space. At 17.5 inches, the chamber is not quite deep enough to fit large spareribs on the rib racks, but you can position them diagonally across the chamber on the flat racks. With the two included meat hooks, you also have the option of hanging spare ribs and other large cuts from the top brackets with plenty of space left below.
It might require a second mortgage to pull off with today’s meat prices, but one could easily cook seven racks of baby backs at one time and still have room for two Boston butts and an assortment of sausages, chicken parts, or other small cuts. That’s a lot of capacity for a small footprint.
I definitely like the versatility of the Bandera’s chamber design, which offers all sorts of options for hanging and positioning meat. The porcelain-coated racks slide easily in and out, making it simple to load in, remove, and reposition various meats during a cook (using heat-proof gloves or thick towels, of course.) They’re also easier to clean and maintain than non-coated grill grates, often requiring nothing more than wiping down with a towel after a cook.
Other admirable features of the Bandera include heavy wire coil springs on the cooking chamber and firebox door handles, which keep them cool enough to open and close without gloves. The flip-top firebox with its brackets for supporting a cooking rack proves a nice convenience, too. Though it’s not likely to displace your kettle or another charcoal grill for everyday hot-and-fast grilling, it’s handy for finishing off ribs or chicken wings after they’re smoked or to grill a few burgers at the end of a cook for those benighted guests who don’t like pork steaks or smoked mullet.
I found myself opening the firebox’s hinged lid regularly to add more wood to the fire from the top since the low profile of the firebox’s door (only 10 inches high and two feet above the ground) can make it hard to add wood and position it. Trial and error showed that leaving the top lid open for half a minute or so doesn’t have a noticeable effect on the cooking chamber temperature.
One of the most fun parts of testing the Bandera was coming up with all the different things I could try cooking on it. I had great results with spare ribs hung vertically from the meat hooks, and I ended up smoking everything from jalapenos to sausages to tomatoes simply because I had plenty of extra rack space available. Perhaps the best finished product was a ten-pound pork butt, which emerged after ten hours succulently tender, pulling easily into long shreds with plenty of smoky mahogany bits around the edges. I chalk up those results mostly to the pork’s cooking low-and-slow the entire day without any big temperature spikes.
And that brings us to a few of the challenges with the Bandera. The first and most significant is temperature control — specifically getting the cooking chamber up to, and staying consistently at, a high enough temperature.
Any new pit takes trial and error to learn, and unfortunately, the Bandera’s product manual isn’t much help on that front. The “Smoking and Slow Cooking” section notes that “either charcoal or wood may be used” but advises that “wood is the recommended fuel for it’s [sic] rate of burn and the flavor it imparts to the food being cooked.” Click here to learn all about smoking on wood.
The “Cooking Tips” section contradicts that, leading with charcoal briquettes and recommending using “2 pounds (approximately 30 briquettes),” which is about half a charcoal chimney.
That’s far too little to bring the chamber temperature up to even the low end of the barbecuing range, which I define as 225℉ but the Bandera’s in-door thermometer insists is 250. Either way, the Bandera is fundamentally a stick-burner, and I found the optimal fuel (especially when cooking at 225℉ or above) to be hardwood logs about a foot in length and split three or four inches wide, supplemented with lump charcoal.
Through trial and error, I found the most effective method for getting the pit up to temp was to burn a full chimney of charcoal till ashed over, spread it evenly over the firebox grate to get a nice base, then layer on three or four split sticks of wood and get a good ripping fire going.
Though the firebox and cooking chamber doors are made of relatively thick steel, there is no gasket or other seal around them, and a lot of smoke does escape from around the doors. During the cook, I found it worked best to keep the dampers on the side of the firebox wide open and regularly add several sticks of wood at a time to keep the heat up. I typically would keep the chimney damper wide open, too, unless the temperature started to rise too high in the chamber. Closing the top damper can drop the temp a good 50 degrees in just a minute or two, and once back at the desired temperature you open the top damper again to keep the fire burning cleanly.
Fortunately, even if you struggle with temperature control, you’re far more likely to err on the low side and avoid the high temperature spikes that result in tough or dry meat. On the downside, if you pile on a few extract sticks and get a good roaring fire going (which is needed to get up to barbecuing temp), the heat may blister the paint on the firebox, which promptly flakes off.
After just three cooks I already had a good 12-inch diameter bare patch atop the firebox, a phenomenon that reviewers on various e-Commerce sites have also reported. The manual does note that “an occasional touch-up of the exterior paint will be required,” and fortunately I already had a can of high-temp black spray paint in my garage, as this is not a problem unique to the Bandera.
Speaking of the product manual, it could use a little work. Many of the instructions are light on detail, and some appear to be copied and pasted from the guide for another product. One recommendation, for instance, is to use the “indirect grilling method, with coals to either side of the drip pan and the food over the pan rather than directly over the coals,” which doesn’t make sense for the Bandera’s offset design.
The seasoning instructions, furthermore, say only to “build a small fire” on the grate and to position both the firebox and smokestack dampers “approximately at one-quarter open” and let it burn for at least two hours, with no temperature specified. An article entitled “How to Season a New Smoker” on the Oklahoma Joe’s website, however, advises a two to three-hour burn at a temperature of at least 275℉ – 300℉. I couldn’t get the Bandera anywhere near that temperature, much less hold it for two hours, with just a single chimney of charcoal and the dampers only a quarter open.
And that’s all the more the shame, for once I figured out how to get the chamber suitably heated and keep it there, I found much to like about the unique vertical offset design.
All in all, the greatest strength of Oklahoma Joe’s Bandera is its capacity and versatility. It’s particularly well suited for smoking fish at sub-barbecue temperatures (200℉ – 225℉ degrees), and you could probably fit an entire day’s catch in that big vertical chamber, even when the fish were really biting and the game warden wasn’t looking.
For barbecue cuts like ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder, the Bandera isn’t going to give you the control and consistency of high-end offsets that cost three times as much or more. But you can load it up with more than enough meat to feed a crowd, and it’s a good Swiss army knife solution for someone looking to up their game to cooking on wood and smoking a wide range of meats and other foods. Bandera offers a viable solution for aspiring stick burners who don’t have the budget for a classic, competition-grade offset, but wisely don’t want to waste money on a cheapo $200 tin can. We award Bandera our AmazingRibs.com Best Value Gold Medal.
Two years on all parts.
We thank Oklahoma Joe’s for providing a Bandera for our tests.
Bandera Vertical Offset Smoker
Made in USA:
Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
744 square inches
Large(about 36 burgers)
248 square inches
In the late 1980s Oklahoma Joe began producing award winning, traditional, 1/4″ offset smokers. The company was purchased by Char-Broil in 1998 and went through a series of twists and turns for decades. For many years the name “Oklahoma Joe” appeared on super cheap Char-Broil smokers. Recently Oklahoma Joe has recaptured a degree of their past prestige. Although they no longer make heavy, competition grade pits, they seem to be making the marriage with Char-Broil work by offering decent quality for a little more than the cheap big box junk, at prices well below the professional brands.
Robert F. Moss, BBQ Historian - Robert F. Moss is a highly respected authority on food, drink, and culinary history. Working from his home base in Charleston, South Carolina, he is the founder and publisher of The Southeastern Dispatch, the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living and a frequent contributor to publications including Serious Eats, Saveur, Early American Life, Garden & Gun, The Local Palate, and the Charleston City Paper.